Nepal Is Not on “The Brink of Collapse”

This morning my mom sent me an article that I’ve also seen circling around facebook called “Nepal, on the Brink of Collapse.” I read it and was immediately put off by its suggestion of impending crisis and doom. The title says it all.

Although the authors describe the political situation in detail and I agree with their calls for less bribery and corruption, I take issue with some of their claims and suggestions…

When describing Nepal, people often mention its poverty, as did this article. The article notes, “with a per-capita gross domestic product of $490, Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world; unemployment is at 45 percent.” What do they mean when they say that unemployment is at 45 percent? That part needs to be clarified. Are they including subsistence farmers who don’t necessarily earn a monetary income? This mention of poverty isn’t central to the article, but I think it’s important to quickly note the problem with its suggestion that less commercial activity, spending and buying means a loss. I wrote about this a bit in this article about poverty and wealth in Nepal.

Yes, Nepal is poor by world standards and there are many people who don’t have adaquate shelter, food, or clothing. But a standard of poverty set by the West is not necessarily the right one because Western countries often measures levels of poverty based on income and gross domestic product. This what I wrote in another post about poverty in Nepal:

According to The World Bank, Nepal is the poorest country in South Asia… between 30 and 40 percent of people in Nepal live below the international poverty line, which means they live on less than $1.25 a day. The problem with this definition of poverty is that…it ignores the fact that quality of life does not necessarily go down with decreased income. A lot of the people that would fall under the poverty line in Nepal are subsistence farmers who grow what they eat and don’t need much money to survive on or even live well. For about a month two years ago, I stayed with a Sherpa farming family a rural area of Nepal that practiced subsistence farming…they had a very small income. I’m not sure if they would fall under the international poverty line, but they were quite poor by Western standards…But were these people really poor? When I think of poverty, I think of destitution and squalid conditions, but this family was definitely not living in that type of situation. They had a comfortable house, they owned land and always had enough to eat.

More money doesn’t necessarily mean higher quality of life. And less income doesn’t necessarily mean deprivation or loss.

Besides being turned off by this article’s claim about money and poverty, I was confused by their suggestion that foreign aid should be withheld in order to “emphasize the need for compromise.”

Towards the end of the article, the authors suggest:

The global community can show its concern by threatening to withhold aid, which makes up 3.4 percent of Nepal’s economy. Donors should insist that the new constitution be completed, emphasizing the need for compromise, particularly in the debates around ethnic representation and federalism.

I fear that this would have awful results. Yes, there is corruption that surrounds foreign aid; not all of it gets to people who really need it, but what about the organizations that do put it to good use? What about all of the people that this aid is helping? Besides, wouldn’t cutting out a large section of the economy only bring more disruption to Nepal?

My last concern with the article is the way that it ignores all of the change that’s happening beyond the confines of the politicians and government. What we noticed while living there was that there are a lot of amazing things going on despite corruption, political fighting, and little governmental support. People are side-stepping red tape and rules in order to both get on with their lives and enact change. It’s not always easy to do this, and I don’t think it’s a long term solution, but it is happening and it can be effective. For one, the economy felt alive and growing. I would often hear about new restaurants and businesses opening while we were there. Some INGO’s and NGO’s, run by Nepalis and foreigners, are also continuing to do incredible work. I’ve head of some who are able to work with government and others who learn to work around it. Schools are also continuing to be effective and innovative, including the school I worked at. They have done amazing things over the years, educated hundreds of kids, and brought new ideas about education to Kathmandu and rural areas, even during the decade-long conflict.

People are strong and innovative. Even in the face of a bleak political situation, they continue to live their lives and make change happen. I think that the article aptly highlights some of the problems with the government in Nepal, but it’s too inflamatory and doesn’t give the whole side of the story.

I’d love to hear what other people have to say about it. What do you think?

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Shutting Down Kathmandu

On Saturday, while Tri and I were at home, we heard news that there was a bandha in Kathmandu. Bandha literally means “closed.” The streets had been shut down so that no cars, motorcycles, buses, or vehicles of any kind could drive on them. Thankfully the bandha didn’t affect us much because we had planned to stay at home most of the day anyway.

But it did affect our neighbors’ family. Their daughter lives in another part of the city with her husband and daughter, and they decided that despite the bandha, they were going to come over and visit. They took their car out and drove down the streets. When they reached one of the major junctions on the way to their parents’ house, people started coming at their car, hitting it with rocks. The woman’s husband is some kind of reporter, so he had a press pass. Once he showed it, they stopped hitting the car and let them go by. Their daughter was telling me that there were even police there, but they didn’t lift a finger to stop the attack.

Bandhas are not enforced by the government as a whole but are usually started by a group of people or a political party that wants to take a stand on something. Last week, there was a bandha in the district in which I work because someone had been tied up and murdered in a jewelry shop. I’m not sure who organized that bandha, but it was held to protest the murder of this innocent man. And in that example, you can see where calling for a bandha doesn’t really solve any problems. Obviously people were angered and frustrated by this murder, but making everyone suffer by shutting down schools, offices, and shops isn’t going to help.

On Saturday my family explained to me exactly why they had shut down the city. Apparently a politician in Chitwan (a city in Southern Nepal) affiliated with the Nepali Congress political party was thrown in jail on charges of murder. Some people involved with the Unified Marxist-Leninist Party beat him up while he was in jail. The politician was in critical condition and although he was brought to a hospital, he died shortly after being transferred. The Nepali Congress party called the bandha on Saturday as a way of protesting his death.

Only Monday, they called another one, and this one did affect me and Tri because we had to stay home from work. The leaders in the Nepal Congress say that they want the charges against that politician to be dropped, and they want the man to be declared a martyr.

The protesters calling for the bandha on Monday were really serious about it. One guy from Tri’s office tried to come into work by car early in the morning, around 6am. Protesters smashed his car and beat him up. He had to get three stitches.

Bandhas seem to come in waves. For a few months, they’ll happen pretty frequently and then stop for a while. Before I came to Nepal in July, I heard that people were starting to disobey the bandhas because they were so sick of them, and I hope the people of Kathmandu who don’t want to put up with this kind of thing can continue to feel empowered to fight against them.

The Politicians Are at Work but No Cause for Celebration Yet

On Tuesday, leaders from the major political parties signed an agreement that’s going to (hopefully) move the peace process forward.

After the conflict in Nepal (called “the People’s War”) ended in 2006, almost 20,000 people claimed to have been part of the Maoist army. Since the Maoists agreed to a cease fire five years ago, they have lobbied for these fighters to be integrated into the Nepali military. However, other parties and the military itself have generally opposed this proposition because they are worried that one political party will have too much sway in the military.

This disagreement has prevented the much-needed constitution building from happening, but this week, Prachanda (Chairman of the Maoist Party), Baburam Bhattarai (Prime Minister of Nepal), and other major party leaders have signed an agreement that will hopefully clear up these disputes.

In the 7-point agreement, they have decided that 6,500 of the approximately 19,000 fighters will become part of a special force that performs non-combat duties like patrolling forests and carrying out rescue operations. The other fighters will be let go and given a maximum of 900,000 Rupees as compensation. I’m very glad this agreement was reached, but I have to say, 900,000 (about 11,500 US$) is a lot of money in Nepal. I wish that this government money could be going to other causes like improving infrastructure, education, and healthcare. However, I’m really glad the politicians were able to settle this issue.

Because this has been a sticking point for so long, when we found out a deal had been reached, I kind of expected everyone to be rejoicing in the streets. I thought there would be cheers heard from around Kathmandu, fireworks, or at least a bottle or two of champaign opened. But the next day, people were going about their business as usual. There’s a lot more work to be done, and the deal has yet to be implemented, so I guess they’re saving the celebrations for later…

What do you think about this agreement? Will it really move the peace process forward?

Nepal’s New Prime Minister Owns a Mustang

Last week the Constituent Assembly appointed a new Prime Minister, Baburam Bhattarai. There has been a lot of talk among friends and workmates about what great things he’s going to do. On Sunday, Tri’s brother was excitedly telling me how he turned around the country’s finances as finance minister and scored the top marks in the nation on the SLC in the year that he took it (the nation-wide high school exit exam). While I don’t think doing well on a standardized test predicts much about one’s success at constitution building, I do think this guy has potential. He seems modest and humble, or at least he’s good at projecting that image. Most politicians buy expensive cars with government money, but Bhattarai bought a Nepali-made SUV for about 16 lakh (about 23,000 US dollars), a fraction of the cost of the typical car a Nepali prime minister might buy. The car is called a Mustang, named after a region of Nepal (You can find a picture of it by searching for “Hulas Mustang” on google). One of Tri’s friends was telling him that when he read that Bhattarai was ordering a Mustang, he got really excited, thinking that he had ordered the muscle car by the same name. No, Bhattarai didn’t order a muscle car…but people are still really happy about his choice.

Bhattarai received his degree from the Delhi School of Planning and Architecture, and I’m hoping that once the constitution passes (if it does), he might get involved in urban development and city planning in Kathmandu. Nobody knows if the next constitution deadline will be met, but we’re all feeling optimistic about it. I think that people are generally more hopeful than they were when I lived here two years ago. While I was riding the bus back from Dhampush, I learned the lyrics of phulko aakaamaa, a famous Nepali song sung by the celebrity Buddhist nun, Ani Choying. We got to talking about her, and one of my bus-mates told me that she recently saw peace for Nepal in a dream. Here’s to hoping…